Thomas Cole. Oil on canvas, 1826, 43 x 36 in. The Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, AL.
New York City merchant William Gracie commissioned Falls of the Kaaterskill upon the immediate success of Cole's first three paintings of the Catskill region, completed after the artist's initial trip up the Hudson in 1825.
Cole journeyed first to West Point and Cold Spring before continuing north to Buttermilk Falls, Troy, and Cohoes Falls near Albany, where the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers meet. On the return trip, Cole spent extended time in Catskill, stopping at the Catskill Mountain House. 1
The artist spent the following winter on the Schoharie River estate of George William Featherstonhaugh, where he worked tirelessly on the many commissions he had received that year.
Cole was not the first artist to venture into this region. The Irish-born landscapist William Guy Wall published a series of picturesque views in the Hudson River Portfolio (1821-26), engraved by John Hill.
In fact, the Catskill Mountains region was fast becoming a popular tourist destination as wealthy Americans began to look to their own native countryside for recreation and aesthetic inspiration. The Catskill Mountain House, built in 1824 on an escarpment overlooking the Hudson Valley, offered accommodations for such guests, and carriage roads were built in order to make remote mountain areas more accessible to tourists.
Cole frequently composed poetry and essays about the beauty of Kaaterskill Falls. In 1843, he wrote:
There is a deep gorge in the midst of the loftiest Catskills, which, at its upper end, is terminated by a mighty wall of rock; as the spectator approaches from below, he sees its craggy and impending front rising to the height of three hundred feet. The huge rampart is semi-circular. From the centre of the more distant or central part of the semi-circle, like a gush of living light from Heaven, the cataract leaps, and foaming into feathery spray, descends into a rocky basin one hundred and eight feet below; thence the water flows over a platform forty or fifty feet, and precipitates itself over another rock eighty feet in height; then struggling and foaming through the shattered fragments of the mountains, and shadowed by fantastic trees, it plunges into the gloomy depths of the valley below. 2